Swimming and water play offer many benefits for kids with autism including, providing a calming and sensory-rich experience. However, swimming and water play can also pose the risk of possible injuries and drowning, especially if a child is prone to wandering and/or elopement. In fact, drowning is tragically the leading cause of death among children with autism and can occur in as little as a few inches of water.1
The good news is, if your child loves the water there are many things you can do to help make sure they stay safe.
Different Types of Water
It is important to learn what source(s) of water your child is drawn to, especially if they are prone to wandering/elopement. When it comes to water safety many parents automatically think of the pool or maybe the beach, but water safety is important around all sources of water.
Does your child like water faucets, a local pond, or a swimming pool? Maybe your child loves a water fountain at a nearby shopping center or in a neighbor’s yard.
It’s important for parents to understand and be aware that a child’s wandering/elopement may be motivated by getting to that ‘water spot’ to see the calming effect of their favorite water fountain, for example.
Water Safety and Swim Lessons
Along with understanding what kind of water your child is drawn to it is important to educate the entire family about water safety. The American Red Cross offers a free online Water Safety Class for Parents and Caregivers, and Swim Angelfish provides free adaptive swim videos.
When teaching your child about water safety, you may want to use social stories and reinforce the ideas with engaging videos. If your child loves online apps and games you can download The Adventures of Splish and Splash app (for Android and Apple devices) to learn what to do – and what NOT to do – in and around pools and spas.
It is also important that the entire family knows how to swim. The YMCA offers child and adult swim lessons for a modest fee in most locations throughout California. And if you explain that your child has autism and needs extra assistance during the lesson, they are generally quite accommodating.
General Water Safety Tips
In addition to swim lessons and water safety courses, there are many general water safety tips you and your family should follow:
- If you have a pool on your property, ensure it is completely fenced in and locked
- Teach your child to approach and enter the water while holding your hand
- Keep your child within arm’s reach when you are in the pool with them (and if they are in the pool/water, you or another responsible adult who knows how to swim should always be within arm’s reach of your child)
- Once your child has learned how to swim, generalize those skills in a variety of settings (different pools, lakes)
- Stay focused on your child (put the phone away, avoid engaging in conversations or leaving the area even if it’s ‘just for a minute)
- Make sure family members and neighbors around you are aware of your child’s tendency to wander toward water and their preferred water sources
- Always wear a life jacket when boating
Understand the Signs of Drowning
Despite the many precautions you may take, a child may still find themselves in a situation where they could start drowning. The actual signs of drowning are much different in real life than they are portrayed in the movies.
Indicators that someone is drowning:
- Head low in the water with their mouth at water level
- Head tilted back with their mouth open
- Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
- Eyes closed
- Hair over the forehead or eyes
- Not using legs—vertical in the water
- Hyperventilating or gasping
- Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
- Trying to roll over on the back
- Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder2
As a parent, you also need to be aware of secondary drowning, also commonly referred to as dry drowning. This can occur after a near-drowning experience (6-12 hours later) and is caused by fluid entering a child’s airway or lungs.3
Signs of secondary drowning include:
- Heavy coughing
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- High fever
- Change of skin color
- Loss of consciousness
- Vomiting or foaming at the mouth
If your child experiences any of these symptoms you should seek medical attention immediately.
Swimming can be a fun and enjoyable experience for the entire family; with the right precautions, it can be a safe one too!
For more tips for parents with children diagnosed with autism be sure to check out the Opya website.